“With the close of each racing year comes the interesting problem of the best horse…In past years this was much easier than it is in the present. Today commercialism cuts an important figure, crowding old-fashioned ‘sportsmanship’ to the wall. Horses are no longer raced purely as ‘sport’ much as we may desire to delude ourselves, and the public, on this point. Today, when one has a good horse, instead of being ready to ‘meet all comers,’ as the old saying ran, it is a question, far, far too frequently, of how such a meeting would result when the horse or mare goes to stud.”
No, this passage isn’t from a contemporary source. In fact, it is from an article published in Outing magazine—in 1906.
The author Wilfred Pond is lamenting that fact that the champion 3-year-old colt Sysonby and champion 3-year-old filly Artful—both unbeaten for the year—failed to meet on the track, unlike the previous year when, as 2-year-olds, the filly crushed Sysonby in the Futurity:
“Yet, as three-year-olds, they never met. Public allegiance is divided; as will be told later, the public was absolutely clamoring for such a meeting, as neither had been beaten as three-year-olds, and between them rested the claim to pre-eminence.”
My, isn’t the old adage true: “The more things change, the more they remain the same”?
So, here we are in a quandary regarding who should reign as 2009’s Horse of the Year—the undefeated 5-year-old mare Zenyatta, fresh off defeating males in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic, yet lightly campaigned this year and only in California, or the more heavily-tried 3-year-old filly Rachel Alexandra, eight for eight this year running over seven different tracks in six different states, who thrice took on males and defeated all of them, and yet sat out the Breeders’ Cup.
Since the idea of sharing the title was summarily dismissed by those responsible for Eclipse voting (actually two-thirds of the entities vetoed the idea—with the Daily Racing Form supporting a co-winners’ option), on January 18, 2010, one of these great race horses will be named “Horse of the Year” and one won’t. Yet, as Gary West and others have rightly argued, it won’t make one iota of difference, as both have indeed transcended such man-made constructs and already entered into the realm of legends.
That said, it is unfortunate that our year-end awards, unlike the European Cartier awards, exclude any fan participation, as well as lack a thoughtful, well-defined process based on accumulated records, not merely the result of a single (Breeders’ Cup) race or personal voter bias. For the Cartier awards, points are awarded for graded (group) races (much like my esteemed colleague Patrick over at Handride as been vocalizing for years, and in this recent Thoroughbred Times article), and those points are specifically factored into the final award decision, along with votes from racing journalists and fans.
So, even though my voice as a fan in this process is completely irrelevant, here are my 2009 Eclipse selections, with my top three finalists and a few “break-out” stars and honorable mentions, beginning with some of the non-equine categories:
Outstanding Trainer: Jonathan Sheppard
Personally, I don’t believe the outstanding trainer should be decided based solely on who has the largest number of winners, as you have to question how great a role an individual trainer plays when he/she runs a massive “corporate” stable that stretches from coast-to-coast. I base my opinion on what a trainer gets out of the horses he/she is given, and, with that in mind, no one did a finer job this year than Jonathan Sheppard—if for no other reason than 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight and well-traveled sprinter Informed Decision. Still, Steve Asmussen didn’t muck up Rachel Alexandra or most of the other top horses he acquired this year, so I respect his mention among the top echelon. It may appear gratuitous to nominate the recently-deceased Bobby Frankel, but he did have an extraordinary year, including Stardom Bound winning the G1 Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks early in the year (she only began losing after transferring to Rick Dutrow), Champs Elysees winning the G1 Canadian International, and the tremendous mare Ventura who danced every big dance this year, including a victory in the G1 Woodbine Mile over males and G1 Matriarch after Frankel’s death.
1. Jonathan Sheppard
2. Steve Asmussen
3. Bobby Frankel
Breakout Star: Tim Ice
The great performance of 3-year-old Summer Bird elevated Ice to nation-wide acclaim. With the newly-acquired patronage of blue-blood racing matriarch Marylou Whitney and a promised stable shift to New York next spring, Tim Ice is definitely a young trainer on the rise.
Outstanding Jockey: Ramon Dominguez
In racing, there’s no such thing as a “sure” thing—but if Ramon Dominguez is riding, you can almost count on an ITM finish. He dominated every race meeting in New York this year, winning nearly 400 races and riding such quality horses as Fabulous Strike and Gio Ponti. It was actually a tougher choice between veteran Garrett Gomez and young phenom Joel Rosario, but I’m giving the slight edge to Gomez for his steely consistency when it comes to the big races.
1. Ramon Dominguez
2. Garrett Gomez
3. Joel Rosario
Breakout Star: Rajiv Maragh
Darley started riding him this year, and he won multiple G1s with Seventh Street (Apple Blossom, Go for Wand) and Music Note (Ballerina, Beldame). The coup de grace: Helen Pitts selecting him from among many contenders, to ride Einstein in the G2 Clark—a nice third-place finish behind youngsters Blame and Misremembered. I look forward to even better results in 2010.
Now for the equine categories, beginning with the 2-year-old categories—both of which I have ambivalent feelings so I’ll simply list my rather uninspired top three choices.
Two-year-old Male: Lookin At Lucky
1. Lookin At Lucky
2. Noble’s Promise
3. Buddy’s Saint
Two-year-old Female: Hot Dixie Chick
1. Hot Dixie Chick
2. She Be Wild
3. Blind Luck
Three-year-old Male: Summer Bird
In my mind, this is a no-brainer: Summer Bird won the G1 Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and finished a magnificent third in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Classic over a surface he probably didn’t relish. Mine That Bird’s amazing Kentucky Derby win is a good enough reason, but his runner-up finish to Rachel Alexandra in the G1 Preakness and third-place finish in the G1 Belmont outweighs his poor all-weather showings in California (memo to his connections: stick to real dirt!). After victories in the G3 Tampa Bay Derby and G2 Illinois Derby, Musket Man put in dynamic third-place finishes in the G1 Kentucky Derby and G1 Preakness before heading to the sidelines with a bone bruise preparing for the G1 Haskell in August. A personal preference choice here.
1. Summer Bird
2. Mine That Bird
3. Musket Man
Ones to Watch for 2010: Courageous Cat
Courageous Cat may appear an unlikely choice considering he’s a turf horse who didn’t break his maiden until June. However, this late bloomer capped a highly-successful 3-year-old campaign with a second-place finish to Goldikova in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.
Three-year-old Female: Rachel Alexandra
Quite simply, there’s no need to justify this choice—she’s one of the very best 3-year-olds to race this decade. It’s harder to choose just two others, as it has been a banner year for 3-year-old fillies. I’ll have to go with the lightly-raced Sara Louise who followed up her fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint with a victory in the G2 Top Flight. Careless Jewel also put on a magnificent show, particularly in the G1 Alabama, before failing over the Santa Anita Pro-Ride in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Ladies Classic). Other notable contenders: Milwaukee Appeal, Flashing and pre-IEAH/Rick Dutrow Stardom Bound.
1. Rachel Alexandra
2. Sara Louise
3. Careless Jewel
Older Male: Einstein
What I like about Einstein is his ability to win all on surfaces—turf, dirt and all-weather. He’s a gutsy horse who gives 100% no matter what, and the breadth of his 2009 campaign (although not dominant) makes him the best of older horses. Gio Ponti’s four G1 wins were all on turf, yet his second-place finish to Zenyatta in the Breeders’ Cup Classic puts him in contention here. Another one who was up and down, Macho Again could always be counted on for a good showing.
2. Gio Ponti
3. Macho Again
One to Watch for 2010: Star Guitar
4-year-old Star Guitar won seven of nine races this year—all for Louisiana-breds. Yet, when he ventured into the G3 Alysheba at Churchill Downs, he finished third, less than two lengths behind subsequently G1 Whitney victor Bullsbay and Cool Coal Man. I don’t know if trainer Al Stall Jr. plans a more ambitious campaign for him in 2010, but I’d love to see him try.
Older Female: Zenyatta
How can you argument with perfection? Even though she didn’t race outside of California this year and engaged in a very conservative campaign, Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Her stablemate Life Is Sweet won the G2 Santa Margarita along with the G2 El Encino and G2 La Canada early in the year, then finished a nice second to Zenyatta in the G2 Milady before testing open company, finishing an impressively strong-closing third in the G1 Hollywood Gold Cup. Winning the G1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (Ladies Classic) solidified my vote for her here. I’m still scratching my head over Seventh Street being entered in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint—her G1 wins (Apple Blossom, Go For Wand) and other G1 runner-up finishes (Ogden Phipps, Ruffian) were all in routes this year. Had the Breeders’ Cup been contested over dirt...Seventh Street may be the mare we’d all be talking about.
2. Life Is Sweet
3. Seventh Street
Female Sprinter: Informed Decision
Six wins in seven races, including the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint—another no-brainer selecting Informed Decision. Carlsbad’s runner-up performance to her in the G2 Thoroughbred Club of America—plus victories in the G2 Hollywood Oaks and record-setting G3 Rancho Bernardo—make her hard to ignore, despite not running in the Breeders’ Cup (not nominated). Sara Louise crushed the G3 Victory Ride before being defeated (by a head) by Indian Blessing in the G2 Gallant Bloom; her first try on all-weather resulted in a fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, but she followed that up with a victory in the G2 Top Flight.
1. Informed Decision
3. Sara Louise
Male Sprinter: Kodiak Kowboy
His late scratch from the Breeders’ Cup Sprint shouldn’t be held against him; this colt faced the venerable sprinter warrior Fabulous Strike three times, defeating him in April’s G1 Carter, and then again in October’s G1 Vosburgh. He ended the year winning the G1 Cigar Mile, and only finished out of the money once in eight races this year. Fabulous Strike is just a monster; facing top company, in five races this year, he finished either first or second in all of them. I know lots of West Coast people like Zensational, but he just didn’t beat anything in his three G1 victories (Triple Bend, Bing Crosby and Pat O’Brien) this year, and lost when it counted most. Racing mostly in CA-bred company, Dancing in Silks wouldn’t have been in my top three, even after his victory in the G1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint—yet that form was confirmed when California Cup Sprint runner-up M One Rifle came back to win the G1 Malibu this past weekend, making Dancing in Silks, at least in my eyes, the best of the West.
1. Kodiak Kowboy
2. Fabulous Strike
3. Dancing in Silks
Male Turf Horse: Gio Ponti
I can’t argue with four G1 turf victories, but I’m strongly tempted to rank Cloudy’s Knight above Gio Ponti. 9-year-old Cloudy’s Knight was just magnificent this year, and here’s hoping for a long, healthy 2010 campaign. Presious Passion is another charmer, nearly wiring the G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf after victories in the G1 United Nations and G1 Clement Hirsch.
1. Gio Ponti
2. Cloudy’s Knight
3. Presious Passion
Female Turf Horse: Ventura
She could have (and maybe should have) won in multiple categories, but to my mind, Ventura fits best as the top female turf horse, off her wins in the G1 Woodbine Mile and G1 Matriarch, and second-place (by a nose) finish to Gio Ponti in the G1 Kilroe Mile. Her second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, and victory in the G1 Flower Bowl, places Pure Clan ahead of Diamondrella, who won two G1s on turf (Just a Game, First Lady)—including two victories over Forever Together. Switching her to Rick Dutrow just before the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (where she finished well back) and then needlessly shipping her back and forth across country before the G1 Matriarch (where she did finish third) didn’t help her, but her prior performances this year rate her in good stead. Honorable mentions: Forever Together and Magical Fantasy.
2. Pure Clan
Horse of the Year: Rachel Alexandra
Sorry, Zenyatta fans, but the ambitious campaign, record-setting dominant wins and three victories in open company over seven different dirt tracks makes Rachel Alexandra the best horse in America this year. Everyone’s certainly entitled to their opinion, and this is mine, which I proudly share with the likes of Steven Crist, Randy Moss, Andrew Beyer, Bob Fortus, Nick Kling and others in selecting Rachel Alexandra.
Will I be disappointed if Zenyatta wins? Honestly, yes, because it will only provide greater credence to a bad trend—the overrated nature of the Breeders’ Cup, at the expense of true racing campaigns, which encourages less, not more, race starts for our stars. That’s not what we need, but I won’t begrudge Zenyatta her moment (although the damn “love fests”, first at Hollywood and then Santa Anita, are really over-the-top). Gio Ponti would naturally be a solid third-choice, but I’m going with my heart—Cloudy’s Knight is undoubtedly one of the best stories in horse racing this year.
1. Rachel Alexandra
3. Cloudy’s Knight
* Wilfred P. Pond “The Best Horse of the 1905 Racing Season: An Overrated Sysonby” Outing, Vol. XLVII, no. 5 (February 1906) pp. 6.